MOST CANADIAN movies defy simple description. Imagine pitching Dead Ringers: it’s a darkly comic tragedy of twin, drug-addicted, suicidal gynecologists and the patients they both have sex with. Or Ararat: a film within a film about a Toronto family grappling with Maxim Gorky, the Armenian genocide and the impossibility of portraying it. Even our comedies tend to be archly constructed, and more clever than laugh-outloud funny—from The Saddest Music in the World, about a legless Winnipeg beer baroness who stages an Olympian contest to find the most tearful tunes on the planet, to Childstar, a film within a film about a limo driver babysitting a spoiled actor
on the Toronto set of a Hollywood movie.
Rob Stefaniuk seems determined to change all that. He’s made a movie that could be sold with just two words scribbled on a cocktail napkin: drunken alien. Or, if you want a more elaborate synopsis: extraterrestrial crash-lands in small town, finds lodging with a talking beaver, wows regulars at the local tavern with supernatural powers, and discovers booze, religion, sex and rock ’n’ roll while being hunted by a cabal of American secret agents who wear bright fun furs and are based beneath Niagara Falls. Well, maybe it is a tad complicated. But Phil the Alien is refreshingly shallow and deeply silly, promising no more than meets the eye. This low-budget cult comedy is also laugh-out-loud funny—a Canuck farce with the mongrel pedigree of SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, Strange Brew and (in its lamer moments) Canadian Bacon. And in a country with a trade surplus of comedians, it adds an impressive talent to the roster. With Phil the Alien, Stefaniuk, 33, makes his feature debut as a quintuple hyphenate: writer-director-star-editor-singer.
We meet for lunch during a blitz of hotelroom interviews in his hometown of Toronto. Dressed in jeans and a parka he received as a gift from the Sundance Film Festival,
Stefaniuk doesn’t look that different from the hoser alien he plays in Phil. Of Scottish and Ukrainian descent, he has a shock of sandy hair that sticks straight up and deep-set, glacierblue eyes. Stefaniuk scans the fancy dining room menu and, bypassing the risotto and sea bass, settles on a cheeseburger, fries and a decaf Diet Coke.
Stefaniuk was writer, director, star, etc. for his cheesily charming movie
“I’ve had so much coffee today I feel like I’m on crack,” he says, explaining the caffeine-free beverage. Eater, still feeling jittery, he agrees to a beer. At various festivals where he’s shown his movie, Stefaniuk kept meeting people who wanted him to be in character. “When you’re the drunk alien guy, you’ve got to take it easy at parties. The Sudbury festival almost killed me—‘Phil, have another beer! Phil!’ And they’d ask me to do some of the sillier lines— ‘Phil, say “It’s medicine.” Say “I’m a magician.” Fall down!’ ”
Sundance was one of Stefaniuk’s latest stops on the festival circuit. But the Utah film gathering had rejected Phil the Alien, which played at Slamdance, the upstart festival across the street. Sundance did, however, select Waiting for the Matt, a five-minute short Stefaniuk had concocted just to prove he was qualified to direct Phil the Alien—to be eligible for Telefilm Canada’s low-budget feature film fund,
he needed a directing credit. The short took just six days, from coming up with the idea, to shooting, editing and transferring the film to DVD. Stefaniuk was flabbergasted to find himself premiering Waitingfor the Man in a 1,270-seat theatre at Sundance, preceding a feature directed by Steve Buscemi.
The son of a legal secretary and an accounts manager, Stefaniuk grew up outside Toronto, in Ajax and Oshawa. “My brother was a magician,” he recalls, “so from the time I was 5,1 was on stage doing stuff.” Moving to the city, he attended the Claude Watson School for the Arts, then enrolled at York University. But after two months he
dropped out and became a street musician. Stefaniuk also did assorted acting jobs, and at 22 he landed a role as the lead guitarist in Catwalk, an MTV series he describes as “90210 meets The Monkees!’ He played with a lot of rock bands both on and off screen—
"I was always the guy with the guitar."
Acting, however, left him disenchanted. “I decided I never wanted to act again,” he says. “I never made more money than when I was acting, and I was never more unhappy.” That’s when he wrote his first movie script, a small slacker comedy called The Size of Watermelons (1996), directed by Canada’s Kari Skogland.
The director says he “pissed away” his late 20s playing music and breaking his promise to himself by taking the odd acting job. “Then I turned 30 and said, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ” So the slacker went to work. He helped produce Public Domain, a dark
reality satire about a surveillance game show with contestants who don’t know they’re on camera—a first feature written and directed by Stefaniuk’s girlfriend, Kris Lefcoe.
Wondering how to concoct his own lowbudget movie, Stefaniuk realized he could get free access to a creature shop run by his brother, Ron, the magician who had grown up to be a special effects artist. “I started thinking of his aliens and his beavers, and it was literally that simple—alien, beaver, Canadian alien. I thought, ‘What would an alien do in Canada? Get drunk.’ ” Stefaniuk’s brother created a talking beaver for Phil the Alien. And SC7V alumnus Joe Flaherty agreed to do the voice, joining a cast that includes Graham Greene as a deadpan bartender, Nicole deBoer as a French Canadian Mata Hari—and Seán Cullen, who delivers a hilarious cameo as a patron making preposterous demands of a waiter played by Canadian Idol Ryan Malcolm.
Phil the Alien has a cheesy, ramshackle quality, but that’s part of its charm. It’s the movie equivalent of a garage band: if it were any better it wouldn’t be as good. Stefaniuk has irresistible appeal as the hoser from another planet who’s in no hurry to get back, although he undertook a full casting search before executive and co-producer Mihkel Harilaid finally convinced him to play the role. “Rob’s greatest strength is his work ethic,” says Harilaid. “The effete filmmaker mask is not one he would ever put on. Rob is a guy who could be as commercially successful as you could hope for, yet he would implode before compromising on ideals.”
Stefaniuk has scripted a feature drama called Run for Harilaid, but won’t direct because he wants to stick to the funny stuff. His next movie will be a rock ’n’ roll vampire comedy called Suck (female bass player shares a needle with a vampire in Montreal as band heads out for tour). Stefaniuk plans to play the lead but says he’ll gladly step aside if a real movie star is cast. At Sundance he met a few, including Robert Redford and Buscemi. He was most thrilled by the latter, who introduced his short film with effusive praise. So did they hang out? Stefaniuk shrugs. “I saw him at a party but didn’t want to bother him. He was surrounded by people wanting their picture taken with him and giving him scripts. I was surrounded by a different type of people, the drunk type—“we gotta go to this place right now... Phil!” IJl
DEEPLY silly, Phil the Alien is the movie equivalent of a garage band: if it were any better it wouldn’t be as good
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